Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel dismantles the critical pieties that uphold British literary studies, seeing them for the loaded weapons they are. Elaine Freedgood rejects the sacrosanct “seamlessness” and imaginary “greatness” of the Victorian novel—qualities, she informs us, that were constructed both retrospectively and wishfully, and as much for the sake of the critical practices they enthroned and the English departments they lent prestige as for the objects themselves. Realism is not all it’s cracked up to be, she tells us, and what it lacks in representational plenitude and formal coherence, it makes up for in ideological reach. The reading practices we’ve learned from Victorian fiction and its late-twentieth-century Anglo-American literary critical reification shape us as “imperial liberal subjects, always in more than one place at the same time, always inhabiting multiple domains in person or by proxy” (xvii). In turning us back to our common “planetarity,” in Gayatri Spivak’s phrase, Freedgood deflates the “great” Victorian novel, the fetish of “form,” and crucially, the “aesthetic racism” of dominant novel history.1
This is field-changing and field-challenging book, and its takedowns are vital, keyed to rebuilding rather than destruction. Working to “unthink novel history and restore the full oddness of the nineteenth-century novel” (x), Worlds Enough urges us to read otherwise and to read other things. Only by “displac[ing] the nineteenth-century novel from the masterful and still center of a novel history that is as contingent as the genre it tries to track” (xvii) can we stop denigrating other national and ethnic novel traditions, not to mention other genres and practices of cultural production, Anglophone and otherwise. Freedgood’s project, then, is not simply to illuminate literary history—which she does with a sharp eye, biting wit, and fierce political commitment—but to change its course.
For Sarah Brouillette, Worlds Enough “uncovers how the English realist novel has been constructed in a way that is designed to exclude racialized others.” And as her contribution investigates, the book’s project by no means stops at “recognition” and “inclusion” of these others (nor “celebration” at all, as Freedgood writes in her reply)—terms cued to reformist ends that merely expand the canon and reinforce the reigning status quo of aesthetic value and critical evaluation. Worlds Enough reaches for a more radical overhaul, and Brouillette explores how this might square with her own goal of “communist study.” She asks a pressing question: “What kinds of challenges to how literary scholars think and teach . . . are actually meaningful enough to support the kinds of massively transformative social projects that are absolutely crucial now?” Freedgood ventures several answers in her reply, including abolishing the English Department.
Ronjuanee Chatterjee also grounds her contribution in our unprecedented, pandemic-flooded world, swirling with loss. She reads British realism, “through Freedgood and this pandemic,” as an “extinction of genre,” which in its “rogue intimacy with its own annihilation, converses with the possibility of our own.” Chatterjee unpacks two of the most virtuosic moves of Worlds Enough: how it uses the figures of metalepsis (a rupture of diegetic or ontological levels in fiction and beyond) and ballast (which Freedgood makes into a new literary figure herself) to expose “uncomfortable truths” about realism—an exposure that Chatterjee argues is “of a piece with minoritarian critiques of humanism” and the humanities. Realism is not a pinnacle of human achievement but a recent invention that serves to entrench imaginary divides between aesthetics and politics, culture and violence, and form and content. In responding to Chatterjee’s illumination of the vogue of formalism as “good object” in recent humanities scholarship and its costs, Freedgood argues that form has become not only a fetish in the Marxist sense (“the highest form of abstraction”) but also a talisman: “If I say form, I am doing real literary study. If I say race, if I say gender or transgender, if I say settler colonialism, I am doing something else. Something less refined, perhaps; something less rigorous.” It’s a gift to read Chatterjee and Freedgood dismantling this logic through their close exchange.
Building on the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, Sukanya Banerjee argues that Worlds Enough “provincializes the Victorian realist novel.” It not only bares the messiness and discontuinities at the “functional core” of the Victorian novel, disrobing it of “the mantle it wears as the standard-bearer of a ‘classic realism,’” it also questions “its received position on the geoimperial map of metropolitan-colonial literatures.” Banerjee sees in Worlds Enough a new map. And given this “multipolar literary terrain,” she asks: So why call this novel “Victorian” at all? Freedgood answers with a fuller consideration of what we lose in “amputating” the Victorian from both earlier nineteenth-century Romanticism and the wider field of British imperial writing in India, the Caribbean, and Africa. And she imagines for us too what British literature courses and their syllabi might look like given this needed redrawing of maps, boundaries, and disciplines.
Freedgood’s brief introduction to her responses is far too modest; it is also characteristically generous in crediting the ideas of others, younger BIPOC scholars in particular, whom she reads (as I can attest) with interest and care and respect. She has been showing the rest of us what it means to do politically engaged scholarship her entire career. That she never stops interrogating her work—as scholar and educator both—and the extent to which it squares with her political commitments is just one more thing she teaches us. Would that we are were all as clear-sighted about the objects we study and how we study them. And speaking of wishes that follow from this book, here’s the most urgent: Let’s definitely not make the Victorian novel great again.
To deflate form is also to deflate our estimation of ourselves as literary critics. I laughed aloud, and definitely at my own expense, when I read how Freedgood puts it: “If we invoke form, we are understood as truly knowing, in some guild-like fashion, the works we discuss” (xi).↩